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Saturday night at Glen Echo Town Hall, singer Carol Freeman and her two-piece band will be performing rebetika—a style of Greek music from the early 20th century first played in hash dens, which often features lyrical themes involving alienation, drug culture, prison, and unrequited love. Freeman’s program, “Four Women of Rebetika,” will focus not on that original hash-den style, but on a slightly more sophisticated café version of the emotional sound, with similar lyrics popularized by two Greek Jewish immigrants in Turkey and two Turkish Greek Jewish immigrants who moved to America. The songs will vary from mournful elegies to livelier mid-tempo dance numbers.
So how and why did Carol Freeman choose this seemingly arcane musical style? She writes in an email, “I began as a singer of Balkan music (Bulgarian, Macedonian, Croatian, Bosnian, and, of course, Greek.) Friends and colleagues shared recordings of music with each other, particularly field recordings and vintage recordings, as these were not widely available those days. I discovered some songs by some of these Asia Minor-style rebetika singers, and fell madly in love with them. I tracked down reissued recordings in Greece, but they were really few and far between. However, there were a few collectors of 78s here in the U.S. who had collected a lot of their music. There was essentially no one singing this music at the time I became involved in it, so a few close friends who did have collections were eager to share them with me.”
With music and anecdotes, Freeman, oud player Haig Manoukian, and violinist Beth Bahia Cohen will bring to life Roza Eskenazi, Amalia Baka, Victoria Hazan, and Stella Haskill. Freeman notes that “Roza Eskenazi was the most famous, probably because she was simply fantastic. For two of these women, Roza and Amalia Baka, they defied their families when they became singers. Roza began as a dancer. She was an exquisite singer, and once she was discovered by a well-known Asia Minor composer/producer, just took off.” Freeman adds, “In this country Amalia Baca was kind of a go-getter who was bored with her role as Jewish housewife on the lower East side and set out to make changes.”
Freeman has done her homework in creating the program. “I learned the music from listening to—-really living with—-the recordings, beginning in the ’70s,” she says. “I also met with one of the four women, Victoria Hazan, from 1978 into the 1990s. She was living in the Sephardic Nursing Home in Brooklyn for those years. I researched the lives by talking with older Greeks who had known the women, by reading the little that had been written (Roza did write a little autobiography, but she was not really steered in a good direction with regard to what she wrote about and already had some dementia when she wrote it), and by talking to relatives of the women. In the case of Stella Haskil, I know her nephew well, and am also in contact with her husband’s son (from his second marriage), who is very interested in promoting her music and her memory.”
Freeman also learned this genre’s feel through instrumentalists who played it. She notes, “[t]here is a loosely woven community of Balkan/Greek/Turkish musicians who have known each other for a long time. We are all friends who share a long history as well as a great passion for this music. In the case of the two musicians who will be with me on Saturday—-well, Haig Manoukian was someone I had seen perform and and admired greatly in famous Arabic/Turkish/Greek/Israeli clubs in the ’70s. Because I had always held him in such high regard, I almost fell over when he agreed to join our ensemble. This was more than twenty years ago, and we have worked together ever since. Beth Cohen is someone I have known through the Greek and Balkan folk dance world for a very long time.”
Freeman also offers a big picture reason for singing the music of these performers. She says she “set out to create this program because while these singers were revered for their extraordinary music, in general Greeks had no idea that they were Jewish. Also, American Jews tend to have no idea that music made by Jews includes these types of non-Western or non-Ashkenazic musical forms.”
“Four Women of Rebetika” takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday at Glen Echo Town Hall, 6106 Harvard Ave., Glen Echo, Md . Free for Folklore Society of Greater Washington members; non-members $25. Reservations recommended. Tickets at www.fsgw.org or contact Betsy at (301)717-4641 or firstname.lastname@example.org.